CHICAGO — Cody Bellinger’s ability to play Gold Glove-level defense at another position once felt like an afterthought, but agent Scott Boras happened to pitch his client’s potential value That’s what I did. With two-way center fielders so rare in today’s game, it didn’t make much sense for Bellinger to leave the premium position. until now.
It’s easy to connect the dots for Bellinger, who started at first base at the start of his rehab duties in Triple-A Iowa Tuesday night. Cubs manager David Ross said the move was meant to alleviate the strain on Bellinger’s left knee, which he injured after making a spectacular catch against the wall on May 15. It’s just running,” he said.
Ross also acknowledged how well Mike Tauchman has performed as a center fielder in Bellinger’s absence, and that first base remains a glaring weakness. “Somebody has to go there,” he said.
Whatever happens between now and the trade deadline, this is another reason the Cubs should consider bringing back Bellinger at least next season. The Cubs used a group of first basemen ranked last in the majors by WAR (minus 1.7 according to Fangraph) for the position. Matt Marvis (OPS. 535), still training to become a major league pitcher, hasn’t had a chance to play since being promoted from Iowa and Eric Hosmer was released last month. It looks like Marvis is getting close to being able to use a triple-A reset.
Pete Crowe Armstrong’s promise isn’t reason enough for the Cubs to eliminate Bellinger. Crowe Armstrong has about two months in Double-A Tennessee, and this season has highlighted the difficulty of making the jump from Triple-A to The Show. Perhaps Crowe Armstrong will one day become a Gold Glove center fielder. When healthy, Bellinger can already do that, playing first base and reshaping the center field with his left-handed power.
Bellinger, who turns 28 this summer, is working on a one-year, $17.5 million deal he signed after the Dodgers declined to bid. He is a National League MVP and a World Series winner. It will be worth watching whether his versatility is the result of injury, a path to a return to Wrigley Field next season, or another way to market him ahead of the trade deadline.
“Every time Berri comes back, we’re just trying to find the best lineup,” Ross said. “He’s a pretty good first baseman. It makes some sense to have another option out there.”
San Francisco’s classic waterfront stadium, now called Oracle Park, opened in 2000, the year after Christopher Morell was born in the Dominican Republic. It was overlooked when Kyle Hendricks nearly went no-hitter last weekend against the Giants, but Morrell’s 365-foot homer to right field in that game was the fastest right field hit by a right-handed hitter in that game. It was only the 70th home run of the . .
Given such insane talent, wouldn’t it be part of this season to find out what the Cubs have in Morrell and weigh the pros and cons?
“This is the big leagues, right?” Ross said. “So take the good and the bad, that’s what a losing team can do. Last year, when we were in that space, he got his chance. “He’s been a bit of a setback in the second half of the season. He’s triple-A and rocked the world this year. He’s come in and he’s a really big spark. He’s got a really good skill set. His batting practice.” Looking at it, it’s probably some of the craziest pop/home run power I’ve seen in a really long time.I know he has the ability to dive deep in any park.
“But I never want to be put in a position where as a manager I put the good and the bad together. Is there room for it? Who wouldn’t? I think everyone does, including me. That’s the word I want to avoid.”
Developing Morrell should be a priority if the Cubs are eight games behind 0.500 and out of the playoffs after Tuesday’s 11-3 win over the leading Pirates at Wrigley Field. It’s interesting to look back at the organization’s prospect rankings for the 2022 season and the general range of Morrell’s name. Do you really think the Cubs had about 20 prospects with better athleticism and better attitudes than the super-positive Morrell?
Morell should have the speed, arm strength and work ethic to be a capable defender anywhere on the field. Perhaps it’s to focus on the outfield, practice all the arm angles needed to play third base, or even move to first base. Swing-and-miss is always part of the game for a hitter who produces that much power. But with his 24th birthday approaching and his resume showing 524 major league at-bats, Morrell has 27 career homers and a .791 OPS.
“Morel has a bright future,” said Ross. “I don’t know where it stands. We let him run[at third base]last year. He’s been improving and working hard and we’re going to take it from there. The line-up I’ve put together is one that I feel will give us the best chances to win every day, both offensively and defensively.”
Morell came off the bench Tuesday night in place of Ian Happ (a calf injury) and launched the ball into Waveland Avenue.
The Cubs are making minimal profit from signing Craig Kimbrel and the White Sox through the 2021 trade deadline. After recovering from Tommy John surgery, Cody Hoyer continues to train and hone his pitching in the Triple-A bullpen. This feels like Nick Madrigal’s last chance in Chicago, or a chance to prove himself on another team.
Madrigal, 26, takes credit for working on an offseason program to stay fit and learn how to play third base at the major league level. 488 (20 for 41) with 6 doubles, 3 triples, 1 home run and 7 RBIs in 11 games.
“I tried everything I could to be tough on them to keep me there,” Madrigal said.
The Cubs are trying to see if a version of the hitter who had a .764 OPS for part of two seasons with the two White Sox teams that qualified for the playoffs still exists. Taking into account all the injuries of the last few seasons, including a torn right hamstring, a strained hip and a strained left and right groin, Madrigal concluded: “I wasn’t physically ready last year. Looking back at some of my swings, I made up for so much.”
The Cubs couldn’t give Madrigal a day job. Because he’s not playing top-notch defense, and he’s not slugging enough. The Cubs were unable to give Madrigal the consistent at-bat he felt needed to lower his timing and hone his swing to the point where he could hit doubles and triples. All of these decisions could go in different directions, as the Cubs are just 5.5 games away from first place in a weak division.
Madrigal was once good enough for Oregon State to be the No. 4 pick in the 2018 draft by the White Sox. Think of this as another audition.
(Photo by Christopher Morrell: Michael Reaves/Getty Images)